During 38 years in business operating Thomas’ Hallmark Shop, there was one thing Gregory Thomas could always count on — Keepsake Ornament Premiere Day.
The annual premiere of Hallmark’s popular Christmas ornaments takes place in July, and devotees of the collectible ornaments often return year after year for the next edition of the item, but that didn’t happen in Johnstown this year.
“Back in the day, we’d have 20 or 30 women lined up outside before we opened for that premiere,” he said wistfully, standing in front of his shop, which will be open for the last time Monday and then close after one final Columbus Day sale.
“We weren’t open to order for the ornament premiere this year, and then we were afraid to order it for fear that we would be shut down again,” Thomas said. “We haven’t bought anything new since February.”
Thomas said the coronavirus pandemic and the economic shutdowns used to slow the spread of the virus have put too much strain on his business for him to continue. He said under normal business conditions he might have 30 to 50 customers in and out on a typical day, but now that’s dwindled to maybe 5.
“We were closed from March 13 on, so we lost Easter sales, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, graduation, ornament premiere,” he said. “We lost all of that, and since we reopened it’s been maybe $20 per day.”
According to the September “Yelp: Local Economic Impact Report” — compiled from data from the online business review website Yelp.com — as of Aug. 31, 163,735 total U.S. businesses on Yelp have closed since March 1, considered the beginning of the pandemic. That’s a 23% increase since July 10. Of those closed businesses, 97,966 are expected to be permanently closed and 65,769 are expected to be temporary.
“In the wake of COVID-19 cases increasing and local restrictions continuing to change in many states, we’re seeing both permanent and temporary closures rise across the nation, with 60 percent of those closed businesses not reopening,” reads the Yelp report.
The Yelp report showed retail is a particularly hard-hit sector by the virus closings, with 39.4 gift shops out of every 1,000 registered on Yelp.com closing.
Thomas, who is 65, said he’s selling the building at 122 W. Main St. where his business is located, which is also where he lives, but he’s not selling his Gold Crown Hallmark franchise, because he doubts anyone would want to buy it.
“I could sell the franchise business, but nobody wants to buy a business like this now,” he said. “The other side of the coin is that the new generation doesn’t send gift cards for the most part, nobody writes letters, it’s all texting and email, and with Amazon everybody is buying gifts online when they can. It’s just easier, everybody is working from home. They just order it up and have it shipped, and so that has taken it’s toll on the business as well.”
Thomas said his business was strong in the ’80s and probably peaked in the mid-’90s, but since then he feels Hallmark has strayed too far from its founder J.C. Hall’s principles, and has deluded its franchisees’ ability to sell Hallmark products exclusively, by offering them online and at other locations.
“The fact is that they put their cards in Walmart, Walgreens, Price Chopper, there’s even a little dump of them over in the post office,” he said. “They’ve ruined their exclusivity. They don’t care. Greed! It’s the great American problem.”
Thomas said he doesn’t sell any products online, and that’s proving to be an important part of staying alive in retail today. He said he doesn’t believe his decision to close will prove a negative bellwether for downtown Johnstown. He said his age is a major factor in his decision.
“If I were 40, I’d probably keep fighting,” he said.
Thomas said he plans to retire to Caroga Lake, but he thinks whatever business moves into his old spot will do well.
“This is a great location, with the park and the parking that’s available,” he said. “Anything is possible.”